The details of Eman al-Obeidi’s whereabouts grew murkier early Monday, after a Libyan government spokesman claimed she was released from custody and with her sister, yet no one offered proof of her safe return. Since Saturday, the alleged victim of a brutal gang rape at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi's men has become the new face to the war raging in Libya.
The spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, went so far as to accuse al-Obeidi of being a prostitute with a long criminal record. (Her family denies the charges, and maintains that she is lawyer.) He also claimed in an interview with the Associated Press that she refused to undergo a medical exam while in custody. It's hard to imagine a woman who had just been raped by government forces willingly submitting to a pelvic exam by representatives of the same regime.
Meanwhile, four men have been arrested in connection with al-Obeidi’s report. According to Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khalid Kaim, one is the son of a high-ranking Libyan police officer. Kaim claimed, in typical Gaddafi regime style—and before the prostitution charge—that al-Obeidi had a pre-arranged meeting with one of these men.
Such salacious slurs serve as the ideal way to undermine al-Obeidi’s honor by implying that she was already engaging in illicit and illegal behavior. In Libya, as in many other countries, a woman carries responsibility for her entire family’s honor. By insulting al-Obeidi, the government is trying to discredit her.
Eman al-Obeidi will not be free until she has told her story without threat of harm to herself or retribution against her family.
To defend her, a cousin has spoken out, saying of al-Obeidi: “What is important now is for the world to know that she [Eman] is a good girl. She is a law graduate. How can she be a law graduate and be mentally ill as well? But there is a great chance that they will beat her [torture her] until she does become mentally unstable. This is something they are used to doing.”
On Saturday, a bruised and disheveled Eman al-Obedi burst into Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel and tried to tell her story of violence to foreign journalists. She screamed that 15 of Gaddafi’s men had raped her for two days after she was stopped at a checkpoint. She claimed her captors had handcuffed her, urinated and defecated on her. The reason for her detention: Her identity card read Benghazi, the rebel stronghold and the heartland of opposition to Gaddafi.
“They say we are all Libyans and we are all one people,” said al-Obeidi, who is believed to be in her late twenties or early thirties. As she pleaded with journalists to help other women like her who were still being detained, plainclothes security guards and hotel staff attacked her. Waiters brandished knives at foreign journalists who tried to interview her, and at least one intelligence officer pulled out a revolver and reportedly aimed it at a SkyNews television crew that was filming the incident.
The video shows a waitress push forward and try to throw a tablecloth over al-Obeidi’s head to silence her during the hour-long struggle. Another rushes her with a knife. Men, who had for weeks appeared to be hotel waiters, suddenly show their true identities, shoving foreign reporters out of the way. Charles Clover of the Financial Times was taken into custody and driven to the border. One Arab reporter, who could speak directly to al-Obeidi in Arabic, was tackled and kicked on the marble floor of the hotel lobby, where the foreign press corps has been quarantined for weeks now. Because Libya has been a police state for four decades, it’s hardly a surprise that those who appear to be civilians, even waiters, are actually in the employ of the Gaddafi regime. Reporting in Tripoli last year, I noticed much of the same with a so-called TV news crew that followed me around the Abu Saleem prison, which was until recently the site of Gaddafi’s worst massacre.
The real story here is the possibility that the Gaddafi regime is using rape as a crime of war against its political enemies. Al-Obeidi’s face was badly beaten. She had marks on her arms and legs from where someone had bound her, and her thigh and legs were scratched. Her story, with the quote she said the security forces had used—“we are all one people”—implies the targeted use of rape as a form of genocide, with the intent to wipe out those don’t support the Gaddafi family.
Libya’s mistreatment of women is not new. A Human Rights Watch report released in 2005 documented the country’s use of “social rehabilitation facilities,” where women are sent, as the director of one such facility told HRW, “to change their personalities.” These government centers are designed for "women who are vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct."
That includes rape victims. As recently as last year, when Libyan journalists had a brief glimmer of press freedom, they continued to report on these social rehabilitation centers, which are still open for business. The fear is now that al-Obeidi could be headed for one of these centers. After the skirmish at the Rixos hotel, she was taken away by security officials in a white sedan.
The question now is where is Eman al-Obeidi? Kaim quieted fears of foreign journalists, saying that al-Obeidi is in good health and they would most likely be able to speak to her soon. But inside Libya, journalists can barely speak out. They will simply be diverted from their luxury captivity in the Rixos and deported like their colleague Charles Clover—or worse.
Since Saturday, the Facebook campaign to free Eman al-Obeidi has grown to 3,600 members and counting. Her supporters range from Halle Berry to the very hotel from which she was taken. If social media like Twitter and Facebook can help start revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and onward, then can these global tools now help set Eman al-Obeidi free? This new movement is growing.
To add rape to the list of war crimes Gaddafi, his family, and his regime can now be held accountable for means one more line item in the catalogue of crimes against humanity. When Gaddafi's son, Saif, called for "rivers of blood" to be spilled in Libya, did he mean for them to include blood from the bodies of Libyan women?
Even if Libya’s government has, indeed, released al-Obeidi from custody, she will not be free until she has told her story without threat of harm to herself or retribution against her family.